RIM’s Foleo

Research in Motion, a mobile device company, will reportedly introduce a new BlackBerry with a slide-out keyboard as well as a large-screen tablet that will serve as a companion device to its smartphones later this year.  If the latter sounds familiar, there’s a reason why it does.  Not too long ago, back in May 2007, Palm introduced the Foleo, a laptop that included a paradox at no extra charge.

Palm Foleo ca. 2007

Palm billed the Foleo as a “smartphone companion.”  Indeed, at its launch, Palm co-founder Jeff Hawkins explicitly acknowledged the shortcomings of the smartphone form factor for doing intensive e-mail.  With a 10.2″ color screen and full-sized keyboard, the Foleo would allow mobile knowledge workers to edit and view e-mail and Microsoft Office documents accessible on a smartphone (and eventually on non-Palm devices).  The Foleo would offer built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless support, making it capable of accessing the Web (without a Palm) as well as browser-based e-mail.

A few months later, Palm announced it was pulling the plug on the project – at a point where the company was nearly ready to ship the product.

There were several reasons why this happened and hopefully the executives in Waterloo are reading this and paying attention.

First, the reaction to the Foleo’s launch in many quarters was a collective yawn.  There was much that was good about the machine (incredible industrial design according to Jonathan Spira, who had a brief opportunity to use one, plus a lightweight, perfect form factor for working on a plane in tight quarters).

There was also much that the Foleo was not.  It was not particularly fast and its functionality was limited due to Palm’s emphasis on making it a peripheral first and networked computer second.

Finally, Palm never anticipated the advent of netbooks, which were then making their first appearance.  Today’s netbooks, available (with mobile broadband contracts) for as little as $49, come without the limitations of the Foleo and were not designed as somewhat crippled peripheral devices.

Palm CEO Ed Colligan, in a message announcing the company’s decision, wrote: “Our own evaluation and early market feedback were telling us that we still have a number of improvements to make Foleo a world-class product, and we can not afford to make those improvements on a platform that is not central to our core focus.” Palm is “working hard” on its next generation software platform and the Foleo was based on a second platform and separate design environment.

Back in 2007 I wrote that the Foleo did indeed demonstrate the potential of the ultra lightweight diskless portable and I hoped that someone would take notice.  Perhaps RIM has.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

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